In military and civilian academic institutions around the world, above and beyond their core curriculum, character is taught and inspired. In each of the military academies in the United States, as well as college Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs, the purpose and responsibility is to produce leaders of character. To accomplish this, they incorporate the values of integrity, respect, responsibility, compassion, and gratitude into the daily life of cadets and midshipmen who aspire to become tomorrow’s leaders.
The U.S. Naval Academy’s mission, for example, is to develop midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty. They provide graduates who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.[i] The Naval Academy has a deep and abiding commitment to the moral development of its midshipmen and to instilling the naval service core values of honor, courage, and commitment.[ii]
At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point character development strategy promotes living honorably and building trust. West Point believes that their approach not only develops character, but modifies behavior over the course of the 47-month cadet experience. Ultimately, the desire is for cadets and rotating faculty members to depart West Point with the character, competence, and commitment to build and lead resilient teams that thrive in complex security environments. Most importantly, everyone commits to living honorably and building trust, on and off duty.[iii]
The Cadet Honor Code at West Point:
A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.[iv]
Recommended Reading: Duty, Honor, Country
The U.S. Air Force Academy has the Center for Character and Leadership development, where they advance the understanding, practice, and integration of character and leadership development as a catalyst for achieving the academy’s highest purpose, while also preparing the cadets for service to the nation in the profession of arms.[v] I think the Air Force Academy has it absolutely correct when they say that there has never been a more critical time to increase understanding of how moral and ethical dimensions interact with the complexities of leadership – not only in the military context, but across many fields of human endeavor.[vi]
The demonstration of moral and ethical attributes are essential for effective leadership as a commissioned officer in the U.S. military.
Those who possess leadership characteristics seek to discover the truth, decides what is right, and demonstrates the courage to act accordingly – always.[vii] Officers in the military are to epitomize humility, self-effacement, and selfless service. So, at the basic and academic level, before the bars are pinned onto a newly commissioned officer, candidates are taught the importance of equality, dignity, and respect.[viii]
Aside from all of these foundations for character development from which scholars transition into professionals in varying fields of expertise and responsibility, it seems that the façade of character in today’s military is crumbling.
Recommended Reading: Defining Military Character
The Moral Compass is Broken
In 2015, just in the U.S. Navy alone, there were twenty commanding officers, four executive officers, and eight senior enlisted firings. In one of last year’s cases, the commanding officer of the Norfolk-based USS Anzio propositioned a subordinate for sex in exchange for career advancement during a “wetting down”[ix] party at a nearby bar. There was heavy drinking and inappropriate fraternization that evening, followed the next day by an encounter in the commanding officer’s cabin.
The list for 2016 is already growing. From the firing of top leaders of a U.S. Navy destroyer for allowing fireworks and gambling on their ship, to a Navy officer being accused of spying, it appears that the moral compass for these leaders has broken.
Related: Relieved of Command
How can it be that the moral compass for these leaders has broken? Why have they ventured off course so far that they ruin their careers, tarnish the branch of service they belong, and betray those who have, up to that point, trusted them with precious people, equipment, and resources? Has leading by example become so difficult in today’s complex military environment that doing the right thing has become challenging?
In an article on the Military Times website, Andrew Tilghman reported that the Pentagon’s force-wide look at misconduct among senior military officers, and the efforts to prevent it, found that the Navy and Air Force lag behind in professionalism, while the Army and the Marine Corps have a very mature profession of arms. Rear Admiral Margaret “Peg” Klein, the defense secretary’s senior advisor for military professionalism, attributes the Army and Marine Corps’ success to sending junior officers into leadership positions, and their professional identity is learned very early in their careers, where they quickly learn the importance of trust, humility, integrity, and empathy.
Not only are officers and non-commissioned officer’s responsible for upholding their own ethical behavior, they are responsible for instilling morals in their subordinates.
It seems the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mentality is a growing epidemic throughout the ranks. Maybe it’s time for the Pentagon to conduct an ethics stand down to reach every service member from four-star rank down to the recruit in basic training, similar to what the Marine Corps did a few years ago, to emphasize code of conduct and core values. But, will that really begin the process to reduce and eliminate the problem?
Retired Army colonel, David S. Maxwell, Associate Director for Security Studies at Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, in an article about the growing concern over top military officers’ ethics, was quoted saying, “Faced with stress, and a very complex combat environment, people make mistakes.” Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, in an article asking if recent ethics and sex scandals undermine integrity of the officer corps, said “The truth is just because people are wearing stars, doesn’t mean they are immune from human frailties.” Are these legitimate reasons for these ethical lapses in judgement, or merely excuses?
Character is the foundation upon which all leadership traits are built.
Moral and ethical behavior is truly where one’s leadership becomes the bedrock of who we are as individuals, and as leaders. Its strength comes from the fortitude to always do our best, and to always do what is right, no matter what may lure us away from making the right decision. The four cornerstones of this foundation are the values of integrity, respect, responsibility and professionalism. Or, to use a different and more common metaphor, these become the four points on the moral compass. They are the core values of a leader that lead to uprightness and success.
No matter what our challenges happen to be, either driven by stress or human urges, we must strive to reach deep within ourselves to overcome the temptation to make poor decisions; no matter if we are in uniform downrange, or in daily life with our family or friends. Our country, society, superiors, peers, subordinates, family, and friends are relying on our steady and consistent moral courage to translate into professional decorum and behavior; always.
Many respected military leaders of the past espoused the vitally important qualities of a leader. Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune, the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps said, “Leadership is the sum of those qualities of intellect, human understanding, and moral character that enables a person to inspire and control a group of people successfully.” Among General Douglas MacArthur’s 17 Principles of Leadership, which essentially acts as a leader’s self-assessment questionnaire, there is this question: “Am I a constant example to my subordinates in character, dress, deportment and courtesy?”[x]
An excerpt from the West Point Cadet Prayer reads, “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole truth can be won. Endow us with the courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.”[xi]
The trailhead to success was clearly identified to us early in our lives and careers. Ultimately, it became our responsibility to continue to travel along a wholesome path. But, at some point in our lives, we find ourselves at the intersection of human-nature and temptation, faced with the challenge to make the right decision. When this happens to you, which way will you go? Will your moral compass point you in the right direction? Is the foundation of your character strong enough to stand firm? Or, will your character crumble to the ground? What will your leadership legacy be? Lessons learned through life’s experiences, as well as the awareness and attentiveness to your surroundings, should always provide you the sense of direction necessary to make the right decision. You must have courage, faith and confidence that your moral compass will point you in the right direction; the path toward the intersection of character and integrity. If your ultimate destination is success and victory, follow your moral compass.[xii]
[i] U.S. Naval Academy. Mission of USNA. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.usna.edu/About/mission.php.
[ii] U.S. Naval Academy. Character Development. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.usna.edu/Admissions/Military-Preparation/Character-Development.php.
[iii] The William E. Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. “Character Development Strategy – Live Honorably and Build Trust.” Letter by Robert L. Caslen, Jr., Lieutenant General, U.S. Army, Superintendent, United States Military Academy: Page 3. Dec. 2014. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.usma.edu/strategic/shared documents/west point’s character development strategy(digital-2-4-15).pdf.
[iv] “The Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic – Honor.” The Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic – Honor. Web. Accessed 17 Apr. 2016. http://www.usma.edu/scpme/sitepages/honor.aspx
[v] “Center for Character & Leadership Development Homepage.” Center for Character & Leadership Development Homepage. U.S. Air Force Academy. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.usafa.edu/Commandant/cwc/.
[vi] U.S. Air Force Academy, Journal of Character & Leadership Integration (JCLI). Center for Character Development – Publications Archive. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.usafa.edu/Commandant/cwc/cwcs/docs/cwcsPub_Archive.cfm.
[vii] “Building Capacity to Lead – The West Point System for Leader Development.” Officership & Perspective: Our Targets for Leader Development | Leader of Character: Page 18. United States Military Academy. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.usma.edu/strategic/siteassets/sitepages/home/building the capacity to lead.pdf.
[viii] Wilson, Dale R. “Schofield’s Definition of Discipline.” Command Performance Leadership. Command Performance Leadership, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. https://commandperformanceleadership.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/schofields-definition-of-discipline/.
[ix] A ‘Wetting Down’ is a ceremony or event held congratulating a newly promoted officer. More information can be found here: “Social Customs & Traditions of the Sea Services.” Functions & Traditions – Wetting-Down Parties: page 14. Naval Services FamilyLine. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. htttp://www.goatlocker.org/resources/cpo/downloads/customs.pdf
[x] Donnithorne, Larry. The West Point Way of Leadership: From Learning Principled Leadership to Practicing it. New York: Currency Doubleday, 1993. pp. 178-179. Print.
[xi] Cadet Prayer. Office of Chaplains. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.usma.edu/chaplain/SitePages/Cadet Prayer.aspx.
[xii] Adapted from “Pithy Points to Ponder (A Leader’s Moral Compass),” by Dale R. Wilson on the blog Command Performance Leadership. 14 Nov. 2012. Web. Accessed 15 Apr. 2016. Edited and adapted for this publication. https://commandperformanceleadership.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/pithy-points-to-ponder-a-leaders-moral-compass/.